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Efforts like the Crew Exploration Vehicle promise to revolutionize space exploration, but are they coming too late to salvage the space agency? (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Is the Vision for Space Exploration ten years too late?

I was intending to write an article about how the ISS needs to be a key part of the Vision for Space Exploration. What I have learned recently, though, made me realize there is something much more important to talk about.

There have been several discussions in the mass media of late about “tipping points” in history. Some say that the recent elections in Iraq are a major tipping point that will reshape the Middle East and the West’s relationship with it. While the elections in Iraq and the courage of the people braving threats to vote are by no means the only factor, it may be the seminal event that turns the world for the better. History will be the eventual judge: even from the perspective of another decade or two, there still may be significant disagreement.

History is filled with tipping points. One was when Christopher Columbus convinced Queen Isabella to fund his voyages. The world seems to only recognize and understand tipping points long after they have happened. I remember hearing a journalist on TV talking about how he would like to have been there when Columbus negotiated with Queen Isabella and then left on his first voyage. I feel that we are on the cusp of the greatest tipping point in the history of exploration, yet the mainstream media doesn’t see it. The current collective versions of Columbus are negotiating with the current versions of Isabella and we need to pay attention.

The US space program has lacked a true vision since Apollo ended, and we have paid the price for it ever since.

A number of recent events have convinced me that if we push in the right direction, we may as a nation and a species be on the verge of a golden age that will forever set the destiny of the human race. If we make the wrong choice, we could just as well be mired in a long period of stagnation—or worse. If I am right we are approaching one of the biggest tipping points in the history of the US and the world.

The US space program has lacked a true vision since Apollo ended, and we have paid the price for it ever since. The space shuttle program and the ISS have been tools developed without a clear vision. The Apollo program was a tool to carry out the vision of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the sixties. It had a clear goal that made the effort wildly successful. The fact that it did not have any follow-up goal is one of the reasons why the public lost interest, leading to its cancellation.

The true benefits of Apollo-like tipping points in history are only really understood by people from the perspective of history. Most of the public does not really pay attention to what was gained by Apollo. Not only was it the technologies and industries built out of the pioneering research and development, it also included the generation of engineers and scientists that were inspired by the dream of manned spaceflight. It also includes the prestige, good will, respect, and influence generated for the United States around the world that was also one factor of many in winning the Cold War.

I remember the excitement and awe I felt as a ten-year-old watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. It set me on the course to study engineering. I wanted to design space vehicles when I grew up. I was also extremely disappointed when I graduated from college at a time when there was no real vision for NASA, with cutbacks meaning few were being hired. If we want this to be a golden age, we need to push for a multi-generation vision that can be sustained. I want the bright ten-year-olds out there to be inspired and have a goal that they can push for. Not all of them will end up working to push human expansion into the solar system. Many will end up in all the other fields of science and engineering that we also need.

International cooperation

The vision needs to be bold and it needs to be international. Like most major international undertakings it needs the US to lead. This is an area I believe the world wants to follow and wants to partner with us. The rest of the world follows the successes and failures of the US space program closely. The successes of the Mars rovers, the Cassini spacecraft, and other projects are reported regularly by news services as diverse as the BBC, Chinese People’s Daily, Aljazeera, among others.

People may wonder why countries like India and China that are rapidly developing into modern economies are spending money on space programs. Space programs inspire new generations in their countries to believe that they can grow up and participate in this journey.

Recently on the Chinese People’s Daily web site there was an article that claimed that after the Chinese launch their lunar probe in 2007 that they would like to move on to work on a lunar base with international partners. I can only reasonably assume that they mean with us. The European Space Agency just announced that they are going to develop a Mars lander for launch in 2011. In the announcement they said they would like to collaborate on a sample return mission for launch in 2016. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, said they want to take part in developing a manned outpost on the Moon. I would like to see India and others involved.

People may wonder why countries like India and China that are rapidly developing into modern economies are spending money on space programs. To me it is no mystery. Space programs inspire new generations in their countries to believe that they can grow up and participate in this journey. They also saw that during the sixties, when we had this massive outlay on space research and development, we grew an incredible economy that leads the world in large part with technology that was developed or pushed forward by the space program.

When NASA spends the bulk of its money maintaining a vehicle with a poorly defined mission, our investment is no longer pushing technology and our overall economy the way it used to. If we successfully refocus our efforts to exploration and do it aggressively, the technology and economic benefits will come. I believe that the technology and industries developed could be easily as innovative as those developed during Apollo and raise standards of living all over the planet.

Shuttle, station, and vision

The news coming out of the recently concluded Integrated Space Operations Summit is disturbing. It highlights the problems and huge holes in the plans for the next decade. If the shuttle holds up to finish the construction of the ISS to “Core Complete”, there is no current solution to provide the upmass and downmass needed to support the station between 2010 and 2014, after the retirement of the shuttle and before the introduction of the Crew Exploration Vehicle. The ISS project is approaching the arbitrary twenty-five billion dollar limit set by Congress. Solutions to these problems may be expensive and could derail spending on future exploration plans.

The Vision for Space Exploration has been initiated because the status quo is unacceptable. The decision makers in Congress that have to be convinced to go along with the vision do not understand all the issues and problems in transitioning NASA successfully to the new vision. Nor does anyone else fully understand what we will face and what will happen. Politicians do, however, understand better than most the politics involved in changing such a large federal spending program. Considering the fights that are generated by military base closing, I think the battles against change will be similar once the details of the VSE emerge. That is one reason why I think we are at a tipping point. If the problems, costs, and NASA center realignments appear overwhelming, the outcome could seriously be in doubt.

The ITER nuclear fusion reactor project is becoming an example of how not to do an international project.

Mustering international support and resources may be key to the success of the Vision. European, Russian, and Japanese partners need to be consulted not only because they will be affected, but also because they can help. An international vision to return to the Moon and going onto Mars would definitely have its problems, but the benefits could be immense. In addition to expanding humans beyond the Earth, it could help unite and inspire a diverse group of nations with a common goal.

The ITER nuclear fusion reactor project is becoming an example of how not to do an international project. Neither Japan nor Europe are budging on where the ITER reactor is to be built. The key government officials involved think that whoever hosts the reactor could end up dominating the technology that may eventually power the world. The stakes of dominating that project are incredibly high. The stakes in the Vision for Space Exploration may be even higher in the rest of this century. The difference between these two projects is that there are multiple segments in the VSE that are ideal for both cooperation and competition.

The shuttle was designed as a tool without a clear goal or vision. When the shuttle was being developed there were several ideas laid out regarding what it could be used for. In hindsight the promises of the shuttle seem ridiculous. It was supposed to radically reduce the cost of carrying payloads into orbit. It didn’t. It was supposed to fly with amazing frequency. It never has. It was also going to make servicing of expensive satellites routine and easy. It definitely did not. Those capabilities were going to open up endless possibilities without any commitment to any real direction. Until Ronald Reagan committed the nation to building a space station the shuttle had no long-term mission.

The ISS has definitely suffered from NASA not having a clear vision for manned space flight. Mistakes have definitely been made in the direction the ISS program has taken. If it is to be used as part of the vision, it is in the wrong orbit (a fixable problem). When design decisions are made for political reasons, it is highly unlikely that we get anywhere near the best possible technical solution.

Too late?

It is human nature to push off tough decisions. Humans also resist change. The Vision for Space Exploration is definitely a major change. The VSE conflicts with reality that has formed around the decisions that have been made in the past without an overall roadmap. Commitment to change comes quite often when there is no choice. The VSE has been given a real push and urgency by the Columbia tragedy.

It would have been ideal if a long-term vision for NASA had been put in place ten years ago. If it had, we would be past the transition and would already be seeing the results coming to fruition. Right now a number of decisions are being made without the VSE being clearly fleshed out. Ending production of the aluminum-lithium alloy needed for the shuttle’s external tank means that there can be no flights beyond the next 28 even if another year of planning determines that we need two or three more. It removes any margin for error in planning programs that have rarely followed their scripts. No totally irreversible decisions should be made until a clearer idea of how the transition beyond the shuttle is to be done. Saving a little money now maybe extremely costly down the road.

Barring any unforeseen worldwide economic collapse or natural disaster I am confident that humans will eventually return to the Moon and go on to Mars; the question is when. The decisions that are being made now will decide if it is the time to push forward. Huge budget deficits, the Medicare and Social Security funding crises, and the uncertainty of the duration and expense of US troops in Iraq have the potential to blindside NASA and other agencies. This is why I believe we are at the tipping point. Decisions made now will determine if we go forward, or retreat and wait for a safer time. These decisions will also determine who will lead when we do go forward. Without rushing and making hasty misguided decisions; the preliminary architecture, cost estimates, timeline, and potential international partnerships need to start coming out so the President, Congress, and the American people can decide if they still have the vision, courage, and leadership to make this journey. I believe that as a species it is our manifest destiny to do so. I only hope that the Vision for Space Exploration was not started a decade too late for it to get us through this transition and succeed.